Thursday, April 21, 2016

The world industrial system as bacteria in a Petri dish

by Jacopo Simonetta

In a previous post, I speculated that a thermodynamic system such our industrial economy is completely dependent from its “outside”. As it grows and incorporates this “outside”, it is obliged to store high entropy inside itself. Possibly, the epidemic diffusion of riots in the very heart of the global system is an indicator of this predicament. Here, I will try to discuss another aspect of the same topic: the fact that, apparently, we are unable to do anything to avoid global collapse despite our deep knowledge of Natural laws and our incredibly powerful technical means.

40 years after the publication of “Limits to Growth”, we discover that we have been just following the trajectory of the "base case scenario" of the book; business as usual, and with a disturbing accuracy level. In fact, in the intentions of the authors, the BAU scenario was not a forecast, but just one scenario among others, useful to analyse how the system works and changes. But the real world itself has turned this scenario among others into an authentic prophecy (image source)

How was this possible?

It could be that we have done nothing to change our policy and economy, but this is hard to believe. In the past 40 years, we have seen a number of major changes and all of them were completely unpredictable at the beginning of the Seventies. For instance, the partial collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of China to the level of the second planetary power, the globalisation and financialization of the economy, the Internet, the Euro and so on. The Meadows and their staff could not have incorporated all this into their model, simply because they could not imagine anything like that. So we are forced to think that such epochal happenings have been marginal accidents in the evolution of the global socio-economic system.

To get a better understanding of this issue, I think it is best to start by considering World3 itself. In a post of some time ago, Ugo Bardi showed that, behind its complexity, World3 has a very basic thermodynamic architecture. It is a system that builds up and stocks information, with a positive retroaction to the inside flow. The larger the system is, the more it is able to extract low entropy from the wells and throw out entropy to the sinks.

In other words, the BAU scenario more or less describes the activity of bacteria inside a Petri box. First of all, it starts to exploit the very best resources (for instance: sugar) and so it grows. As it grows, it needs more resources and so it starts to digest everything available and, at the same time, it evolves as fast as possible in order to implement its efficiency in the exploitation of increasingly rare and poor resources. This until, at the end, it digests itself and dies.

Now the question is: how is it possible that with all our intelligence, science, and technology we act just like bacteria inside a Petri box? And what about our freedom of choice?

Regarding the first question, I suggest that, in 1970, at a global level, the socioeconomic system had already overshot the Earth's carrying capacity. My idea is that a system may have a certain degree of freedom, which declines exponentially as it reaches its limits. This means that, far from the limits, systems can change their trajectory and, the farther the limits, the more choices are possible. Bu, when the system impacts against its limits, simple and brutal physic changes become the only possible evolution and nothing can change that.

For example, a boy can choose his job. Sure, there are always severe limits depending on his geographical location, economic and social status, culture and so on. But the degrees of freedom are anyway more numerous than zero. For instance, he can choose to be a soldier, a taxi driver, or an employee. But, if a 50-year-old man loses his job, the only thing he can do is to slice his bread as thin as possible. If he was an employee, he will never have a taxi licence or he will never be enrolled as a military contractor in Libya.

I presume that my hypothesis is consistent with physics and also with historical data. Many, if not all, extinct civilisations have disappeared because of foreign invasions or collapsing in a typical “Seneca Cliff” trajectory. Many historians have investigated this astonishing phenomenon: Vico, Toynbee, Spengler, Tainter, to mention only the more prominent scholars. Each one of them proposed a different set of causes for the collapse of civilizations and all of them analyzed some important aspects of the process. Possibly, the effect of dissipative structures dynamics is the underlying physics of this historically recurrent event.

To me, this hypothesis is consistent with ancient wisdom too. Mythology and epic are full of examples in which the hero has the possibility to change an adverse fate, but only until he (or she) is far from the accomplishment of such a fate. To cite an example, Hector had three times the opportunity to put an end to the Trojan war, but each time he refused to do so because he was winning and wanted total victory. He was sure that the destruction of the Achaean fleet would mean the end of the hostilities, but we know the story went differently. He eventually understood his miscalculation, but by that time it was too late: Achilles was standing in front of him.

Possibly, at a socio-economical level we have a similar situation: as long we are growing, we can choose to halt the growth. But once the overshoot arrives, we can only follow the intrinsic thermodynamic path generated by the system. Usually, this means an extra growth dragged by system inertia, followed by a more or less troubled downsize. And that may be our unavoidable destiny.

The shape of a typical Secular Cycle, based on the work of Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov in Secular Cycles. ( ) Chart by Gail Tverberg


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)